The ‘Other’ War of Independence. Land Appropriation during the Anglo-Irish War. Part 2 – ‘Back to the Land’ and cattle driving – two sides of the New Land War.

Contemporary cartoon depicting some of the allegations heard by the Times/Parnell Commission

The Special Commission on Parnellism and Crime was, in its avowed aims, a spurious exercise. Its proceedings being described by one enforced observer, the reporter John MacDonald of the London Daily News, as ‘a dismal monotone of cruelty and crime … the viva voce history of a people, one of the dreariest, saddest histories in the world.’[i] It was principally intended to establish the authenticity of the Times facsimile letter of 18 April 1887 (and a variety of related correspondence) which linked Parnell directly to the activities of the lethal Invincibles. 

            It amounted, constructively, to a self-serving indictment by the Tory government of the Irish Parliamentary Party and was designed to establish links between the Parnellites and some of the most shocking agrarian ‘outrages’ (the mot du jour) of the early 1880’s. It dismally and spectacularly failed in the former objective but was somewhat more successful in the latter. For most of its proceedings the Times (as de facto prosecutors) offered a doleful parade of the alleged victims of abuse and mistreatment in rural Ireland, who had, by their own accounts, fallen foul of Ribbon-Fenianism, ‘moonlighters’, vindictive Land League ‘court’ decisions, or sectional feuds. Some of the avowed victims were clearly charlatans tempted by the inducements of the Times to tell the Commissioners what the newspaper wanted them to hear. Some, however, were credible and compelling, and helped to convey the picture of an Ireland in which there was precious little of those much-touted mythical qualities of empathy, fraternity and collaboration in evidence. While Irish peasant society was never quite as Dante-esque and oppressive as the Times attested, it certainly qualified for entry into, at the very least, the Fourth or Fifth Circle of Hell (Greed and Wrath).

             Late Victorian Irish rural society fell far short of the idyllic. Its vices were as numerous as its virtues, despite the prevailing mythos of a noble and beleaguered Irish peasantry, more ‘sinned against than sinning’, whose occasional forays into violent behaviour—aimed solely at the forces of reaction, of course—were entirely justified on the basis of the iniquitous tenurial system against which they struggled. 

            A generation later circumstances had not changed all that markedly. The fissures that existed in the late nineteenth century were still in evidence three decades later. In some respects they had widened. In the intervening period the economics and practice of Irish agriculture had altered considerably. Some of the changes were derived from the continued fallout of the utilitarian post-Famine abandonment of the practice of subdividing farms, and the tacit acceptance of the more pragmatic system of inter-generational land transfer based on primogeniture. While this had positive elements—unbroken holdings could remain economically viable—it also had negative ramifications in the continued drain of post-Famine emigration. In the case of the Clinton family of Cloggagh, Co. Meath (cousins of my great-grandmother) this is starkly illustrated by the migration of almost an entire generation of Clintons (male and female) to the USA around the turn of the nineteenth century.      

            But, in addition, the fundamentals of Irish agricultural practice were also changing. There had been a distinct movement from tillage to pasture / livestock farming. An inevitable prerequisite for this development was an increase in the size of farms. One of the consequences was the reduced need for farm labourers. Both phenomena served to fuel an increased land hunger amongst the members of the lower socio-economic agricultural class to whom few benefits had accrued from the advance of ‘peasant proprietorship’. Driven mostly by Tory governments intent on ‘killing Home rule with kindness’ this trend had begun with the establishment of the ameliorative Congested Districts Board in the 1890s, expanded in scope with the Land Act of 1903—introduced by the Tory Chief Secretary George Wyndham—and  culminated in (the Liberal Chief Secretary) Augustine Birrell’s 1909 refinement of Wyndham’s template for tenant land purchase. The latter, for the first time, envisaged the compulsory purchase of estates and the re-distribution of land to tenant farmers on attractive terms via the Estates Commission or the Congested Districts Board.

            The popular expression of this land hunger was exemplified by ad hoc committees bent on acquiring and redistributing land[ii]. These were often led by local Sinn Fein activists. The illegal seizure of land would often be reinforced by the erection of flags staking a claim and bearing the legend ‘Occupied by order of the Irish Republic’ whether or not the annexation had any official sanction. In one instance sheep driven from the fields of an Anglo-Irish landowner were daubed in the green, white and gold of the tricolour.[iii]

            In parts of the country where the local Sinn Fein leadership attempted to dampen the enthusiasm of the appropriators, groups like the Back to the Land movement were ready to step in and lead. This organisation sought to purchase estates, divide the land into modest but viable parcels, and distribute farms to landless labourers or other aspiring agriculturalists. Back to the Land was supported, in theory at least, by bodies like the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the United Irish League—umbrella organisation of the Irish Parliamentary Party—and elements of the Trade Union movement. Indeed, at times, branches of the movement found it difficult to resist absorption into the UIL, as the Irish Party’s organisational behemoth practised what the late David Fitzpatrick has referred to as ‘the techniques of the party vampire’ in his magisterial study of County Clare in Politics and Irish Life, 1913-1921[iv].  

            Back to the Land, whose emblem was that of a farmer behind his plough—rather than one driving someone else’s cattle at the dead of night[v]—had the resources to purchase or make offers, independent of the official Estates/Land Commissioners[vi] or the Congested Districts Board, on entire estates or large farms.[vii]  It appears that enterprising (or prudent) bank managers were willing to fund such transactions.[viii] Whether the offers always represented fair market value was a moot point, but if the alternative was a period of prolonged agitation—spiced with occasional violent interludes[ix]—the option of selling up was often preferable for the landowner. After all, many Irish nationalists had a philosophical objection to compensating landlords for estates deemed to have been illicitly appropriated centuries before. Nationalist opposition to the 1903 Wyndham Act had been based on the generous settlement terms afforded departing landowners.  When it came to the expropriation of land, Irish memories were elephantine. The Meath Chronicle caught something of the wistful ambiguity of an organisation advancing money to the reliquaries of the landlord class in a report of a Back to the Land executive meeting in April 1922.

‘They had made it plain that they were not out for confiscation and were prepared to give full value for any land they got, even though they might believe that it had come unjustly into the hands of the present owners.’[x]

The Back to the Land movement achieved considerable traction—albeit sometimes occasioned by the implicit threat of apres moi le deluge—in realising the ambitions of would-be farmers and landless labourers. Around the town of Oldcastle, Co. Meath alone, by the end of 1919, more than three thousand acres of ‘estate’ land had been divided among one hundred and seventy families by the local organisers of the movement. In March 1921, in its most significant coup, the fourteen hundred acre McRory Estate, also in County Meath, was purchased and divided among eighty families. The sale of the Fitzherbert family Proudstown Estate, part of which was to be used for the creation of Navan Racecourse, was not allowed to proceed until four hundred acres of the estate had first been purchased by Back to the Land.[xi] The owners were in no doubt about the ability of the organisation to prevent the sale going through. In 1917 Back to the Land had sought, unsuccessfully, to acquire the entire estate. In late September of that year, with North Meath MP Patrick White in attendance, an auction had proceeded for the sale of Proudstown at which, mirabile dictu, there was not a single bid.[xii]

            On the far murkier side of lawlessness was the practice of ‘cattle driving’. This was a refinement of the interventionist policies of the Land League in the 1880s, although it lacked the legitimacy of the nineteenth century ‘boycott’—a practice that continued into twentieth century Ireland. Cattle driving was an explicit and illicit response to the proliferation in certain parts of the country of ‘ranches’. These were large, consolidated (or occasionally scattered) holdings devoted entirely to pasture and to the rearing of livestock, some of sheep but mostly of cattle. The landless—or land deficient—class was losing out on two fronts to this relatively new development in Irish agriculture. With minimal requirement for the agricultural labour previously employed in tillage, the opportunities for the rural poor to make a living were reduced considerably. The ability of the increasingly prosperous ‘graziers’ to acquire additional land by purchase or rental, also shut out smaller farmers, and even the leadership of the Back to the Land movement,[xiii] from capitalising on the erosion of the landlord class and the disintegration of large estates. 

            Cattle ‘driving’— a reaction to large scale livestock grazing—was an activity associated with a period of renewed agrarian activism (1906-09) known as the Ranch War, but it was by no means confined to that period and continued, as a tactic, for many years after the passage of the Birrell Land Act of 1909. This was remedial legislation designed to put an end to the anti-grazier campaign. As the name suggests, cattle driving involved the enforced (and usually nocturnal) removal of a grazier’s mobile assets (his livestock) to a place of detriment far removed from his farm. It was slightly more humane than the ‘cattle houghing’ of the Land War in which livestock were deliberately maimed, although that barbarous practice continued as well. 

            Another legacy of the Land War and the Plan of Campaign was the use of the boycott as a weapon against graziers, or landlords, reluctant to divest themselves of their property. In December 1908, in the village of Cormeen, a few miles from the Clinton farm at Cloggagh, the Meath Chronicle reported that an ‘eleven month’ letting (a short-term lease and a device often used to circumvent decades of tenant right legislation) that was due to take place had mysteriously fallen through. The auctioneer, who had arrived by train from distant Enfield in the deep south of the county to bring down the gavel on the transaction, was informed that he was not welcome. He took both the information to heart, and the next train back to Enfield, from the nearby village of Kilmainhamwood. No auction or sale took place.[xiv] It was, on occasions, only the intervention of the Royal Irish Constabulary, in considerable force, which ensured that auctions went ahead.[xv]

Laurence Ginnell, Westmeath MP and TD

            Leading and exemplifying the ‘cattle driving’ movement was that scourge of the grazier, the maverick nationalist MP Laurence Ginnell from Westmeath. Elected as an Irish Parliamentary Party MP in 1906 Ginnell had never quite settled into subservience. He had first come to the attention of the House of Commons with a series of questions on the 1907 theft of the Irish ‘Crown Jewels’ from Dublin Castle. The tone of his queries suggested that he might have some inkling as to the identity of the thieves himself, and that they were to be found nestling in the arms of the British establishment.[xvi] His advocacy of cattle driving as an antidote to the social implications of increasing pastoralism set him at odds with the Irish party leadership. Their ways parted in 1909 when he sought, and was denied, access to the party accounts. He sat as an Independent nationalist until 1918 when he made the logical leap to Sinn Fein and became a TD after the Republican landslide in the December election.   

            The ‘battle cry’ adopted by the cattle drivers, and often articulated by Ginnell, ‘the land for the people, and the bullock for the road’, was a subversive variation of the famous slogan of the Land League, ‘The Land for the People’. One of the responses of the graziers to the threat of having their cattle forcibly re-located was the recruitment of vigilante ‘Emergency men’ to guard their bovine gold.[xvii]  Activists of the Ranch War prospered in Ginnell’s bailiwick of County Westmeath. As one of his allies was the MP for South Meath, David Sheehy, the same applied to the neighbouring county. Sheehy—father in law of Thomas Kettle and Francis Sheehy Skeffington—was a septuagenarian, largely absentee, public representative by the time of the onset of the Great War. But his credibility, when it came to land agitation, was non pareilcourtesy of a period of eighteen months incarceration ‘at Her Majesty’s pleasure’ during the Plan of Campaign of the late 1880s.  

(Tomorrow, in the final blog in this series, how the New Land War came to County Meath – with violent and tragic consequences)


[i] John MacDonald, Daily News Diary of the Parnell Commission (London, 1890),19 & 27.

[ii] See Tony Varley, ‘A Region of Sturdy Smallholders? Western Nationalists and Agrarian Politics during the First World War’, Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, Vol. 55 (2003), 127-150 and Fergus Cambell, ‘The Last Land War? Kevin O’Shiel’s Memoir of the Irish Revolution (1916-21)’, Archivium Hibernicum, Vol. 57 (2003), 155-200

[iii] Maurice Walsh, Bitter Freedom: Ireland in a Revolutionary World, (New York-London, 2015), 179.

[iv] David Fitzpatrick, Politics and Irish Life, 1913-1921: Provincial Experience of War and Revolution (Cork, 1999), 101.

[v] Ultan Courtney, Mapping the Revolution: Maps, Mayhem and Murder in Co. Meath, 1916-1921 (Dublin, 2019), 13.

[vi] The Estates Commission was ‘a body created within the Land Commission to administer the new legislation’ (i.e. the 1903 Wyndham Act). Varley in ‘Gaining Ground, Losing Ground’, Campbell & Varley (eds), Land Questions, 29. 

[vii] Meath Chronicle, 28 February 1920 reported ‘Back to the Land – Castletown branch

‘The above association have [sic] recently purchased the late Dyas farm of 132 acres from Mr. J.H.Thompson which is now in course of division among landless men and uneconomic holders …’. 20 March 1920 – negotiations underway for the purchase of the Liscarton estate.  

[viii] Maurice Walsh, Bitter Freedom: Ireland in a Revolutionary World, (New York-London, 2015), 177.

[ix] Kevin O’Shiel, ‘No contempt of court’, Irish Times 21 November 1966.

[x] Meath Chronicle, 8 April 1922.

[xi] Oliver Coogan, Politics and War in Meath 1913-23, (Meath, 1983), 292.

[xii] Coogan, Politics and War in Meath, 25.

[xiii] Meath Chronicle, 17 April 1920 ‘Martry Back to the Land offer of £22,000 not accepted’.

[xiv] Meath Chronicle, 26 December 1908.

[xv] Courtney, The Blinding Light, 59.

[xvi] Myles Dungan, The Theft of the Irish Crown Jewels, (Dublin 2003), Chapter Five, ‘Star Chamber’  

[xvii] Patrick O’Reilly, Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement #1650, 4.